Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bill Gates: Punish “Good” Teachers With Bigger Classes

Overflow Classes of the Future (Image y ckaroli)

In a speech to the National Governors’ Association yesterday, Bill Gates suggested that the best teachers could take on larger class sizes as a way to solve state budget crises (just as long as they don’t increase his taxes, right?)

As usual, his “solution” had nothing to do with solving any real problem. The hysteria over our failing schools is based on numerous myths, while the state budget crises are also a fabrication, the direct result of the wealthy refusing to pay taxes. Nevertheless, as many as 83% of teachers said they were willing to take on more students if they received more pay, according to a survey the Gates Foundation did in 2008. However, even if teachers did say this, the data does not paint a complete picture. Teachers are poorly paid. In some districts they are not even paid enough to live in the communities in which they work. Therefore, it should not be surprising that many are willing to take on extra work in order to get a few more pennies. Yet that is not a good reason to harm students by crowding them into classrooms with less supervision, less teacher attention, and fewer resources. If the real problem is that teachers are not paid enough, then why not just pay them more?

Gates suggestion is based partly on the fact that small class sizes do not always correlate with better academic achievement. Korea, Japan and Australia all have larger average class sizes than the U.S. and better educational outcomes. However, their better outcomes have nothing to do with class size. Their academic success results from the fact that they have much less childhood poverty than we do.

Regardless of test scores, there are many reasons to support smaller class sizes, not the least of which being that it is safer for children. As class sizes swell, it becomes much more difficult to manage children, particularly if any of them have problems with behavior, or remaining focused and on-task. The more student interactions that teachers have each day, the less time they have for each student, making it easier for at-risk youth to slip through the cracks and for advanced students to miss out on opportunities to jump ahead. Also, smaller class sizes allow teachers to form deeper relationships with their students and to mentor them. These relationships often provide the spark that motivates kids in school. Smaller class sizes also provide teachers with more time to actually read students’ papers and record meaningful, helpful comments. They give teachers more time to write thoughtful letters of recommendation, and to provide hands-on, one-on-one attention.

Ultimately, though, Gates’ comments show the utter hypocrisy and cynicism of his education agenda. If he really cared about students’ wellbeing, if he had any understanding of what children really need in school, raising class sizes would not even be in his vocabulary. What Gates and the other Ed Deformers want is to make money off public education. They do so in numerous ways, including the defunding of public education as a way to keep their tax liabilities low. If that means firing teachers, shutting down schools, increasing class sizes, closing libraries, filling the schools will under-trained novices from Teach For America while firing experienced teachers, then they will come up with the data to prove that it works.

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